World War II

World War II

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Although some historians still debate the exact causes of the end of the Great Depression, one event clearly played the biggest role: World War II. Mobilizing for war pumped millions of dollars into the economies of Europe, the United States, and Asia. Unemployment rapidly declined as war industry jobs put millions of people back to work. The War, however, was devastating on a scale never before seen. Hundreds of millions of people were killed worldwide; millions of men, women, and children were systematically murdered during the Holocaust; civil and human rights violations took place across the globe as fear and hatred fueled a worldwide conflict. World War II reshaped the world in ways that continue to affect us today.

The Coming War

World War I devastated Europe and helped push the world into an economic depression. Few countries were affected more greatly than Germany. Much of the war was fought on German soil and the Treaty of Versailles punished Germany for the war. German land was taken away, their military was virtually disbanded, and the nation was forced to pay massive amounts of money to the allied countries that fought against them. Germany was not only blamed for the war, but was being forced to pay for it as well.

During this time the Fascist movement spread across Europe. Fascism is a form of autocratic government that harshly controls its society, promotes extreme national pride and, especially in the case of Nazi Germany, racial pride and dominance. Adolf Hitler rose through the Nazi Party in Germany with promises to return the nation to its former greatness. This included ignoring the Treaty of Versailles, expanding the borders of Germany to create more "living space" for Germans, and eliminating those peoples who were blamed for Germany's fall from power - namely Jews, Romas, and political dissidents.

Under Hitler, Nazi Germany rebuilt their military might, expanded into the Sudetenland (taken away by the Treaty of Versailles), annexed Austria, and invaded Czechoslovakia. Afraid of a second world-wide conflict, France and England tried at all costs to avoid war with Germany, negotiating with Hitler to halt Nazi Germany's expansion. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler in September of 1938, securing promises that Germany would no longer expand, that the nation had built up enough lebensraum, "living space", for its people. Chamberlain returned to England proclaiming that we had achieved "peace in our time."

Peace, however, did not last long. One year later, in September of 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west while the Soviet Union invaded from the east. The war that Europe had been trying desperately to avoid was now seen as unavoidable. England and France declared war on Germany, which led to war on Germany's allies, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union.

While war in Europe spread, in July of 1941 Japan spread its empire through the invasion of French Indochina, the area we know today as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In reaction to this invasion, the United States cut off oil trade with Japan, a resource the island nation desperately needed. Perhaps seeing the United States as the ultimate obstacle to a Japanese empire in the South Pacific, the Japanese military conducted a devastating surprise attack on December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor, the American naval base in Hawaii and home of the majority of the American naval fleet in the Pacific. USS Arizona Burning at Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941Much of the American fleet was destroyed in the attack and more than 2,300 people were killed; on December 8 the United States declared war on Japan. Immediately following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Empire invaded the Philippines as well as Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia.

American "Neutrality"

Throughout the 1930s and the early years of the war in Europe, the United States made some attempts to remain neutral. Congress passed the Neutrality Act in 1935 which prevented, among other things, the United States from selling military arms to countries that were at war. In principle the Neutrality Act was meant to prevent the United States from being dragged into another major war in Europe; in reality, however, the Neutrality Act was directed at Germany and Italy. The United States eventually passed laws to allow trade of military arms to England and France under the Lend Lease Act.

Long before the United States entered World War II, the U.S. government and popular opinion across the country viewed the fascist governments in Germany and Italy as belligerent, aggressor nations that were dragging the world towards another immense war. Neither in its heart nor its actions was the United States truly neutral.

The War Grows

By the time the United States entered the war, Germany and Italy were in control of most of Europe and North Africa and Japan dominated Southeast Asia and the South Pacific region. Britain alone of the Allied Powers in Europe had yet to be conquered by Nazi Germany; the French government was in exile and a separate government friendly to Nazi Germany was put in place in France.

With Europe virtually conquered, Hitler and his armies turned their attention to the Soviet Union and invaded Russia in June of 1941. Much of the worst and most prolonged fighting of the war took place on Russian soil resulting in the destruction of Soviet cities and the deaths of approximately 26 million Soviet people. Joseph Stalin, Premier of the Soviet Union, repeatedly asked for England and the United States to open up a second front in the war by invading Western Europe; Stalin's hope was that such an invasion would divide Hitler's armies and divert the war away from Russian territory. That invasion did not take place until June of 1944, a fact which contributed to the distrust that was a central part of the Cold War.

Steinbeck and Propaganda

Nazi control of Europe was not absolute. All across the continent pockets of resistance held on. Jewish partisans in Eastern Europe, Russian partisans in Poland, and the French Resistance fought a guerrilla war against the Nazi armies. John Steinbeck's The Moon is Down depicts a fictitious town in Northern Europe that is conquered by an invading army that resembles the Nazi Army. The town's citizens, rather than give in to their conquerors, actively resist. The novel was meant to be an inspiration to people in Europe who were under the oppressive control of Nazi Germany. Throughout the war it was reprinted (often illegally) into various languages and distributed in Nazi occupied territories.

Steinbeck further contributed to the war effort with Bombs Away, a book he wrote for the United States military. Bombs Away tells the story of what bomber crews experienced in their selection and training to go to war. The book was meant to boost morale and recruitment into the U.S. Army Air Corps (which later became the U.S. Air Force), an essential part of the war effort in Europe.

The following year, 1943, Steinbeck was hired by the New York Herald Tribune as a war correspondent. John Steinbeck and Jack Wagner, London, WWIISteinbeck's articles, much like his novels, were about the experiences of individual people. He wrote very little about large strategies and the war, instead he wrote about the war that the soldiers themselves experienced - full of their fears, their boredom, and even their superstitions. His aim was to show to the families back home what life was like for their sons, husbands, and brothers.

Victory in Europe and Japan

Even though the United States had entered the war in Europe, the Allied powers did not immediately invade Western Europe as Stalin had wanted. Instead, they launched a bombing campaign to attempt to cripple Germany's military and industrial strength. Steinbeck spent time with some of these bomber crews, training in the United States as well as between missions at air bases in England. He eventually joined the troops who were sent to North Africa and Italy in late 1942 and early 1943. These invasions helped to loosen the grip Germany and Italy had on Europe and Africa and to prepare American troops for a full scale invasion of Europe.

On June 6, 1944 the second front that Stalin had been calling for was finally opened. More than 100,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. Bird's-eye view of landing craft, barrage balloons, and allied troops landing in Normandy, France on D-DayD-Day, as it is known, marked the beginning of the Allied march to Berlin and the defeat of Nazi Germany. By May of 1945 Berlin fell to Allied troops, Germany surrendered, Adolf Hitler was dead, and thousands of concentration camps had been liberated.

With Germany defeated, the United States continued its fight against Japan, methodically pushing Japanese forces back. The American strategy known as "island hopping" involved bloody battles on the series of islands in the South Pacific controlled by Japan. The casualty rates were enormous for both Japanese and American troops. The war finally ended in August of 1945. For the only time in history atomic bombs were used as a weapon. On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city Hiroshima. More than 70,000 people, most of whom were civilians, were killed instantly. On August 9 the second atomic bomb was dropped, this one on the city Nagasaki. Over 40,000 people were killed by the initial explosion. In the aftermath of the bombings, tens of thousands more people died of wounds or radiation poisoning. Japan officially surrendered on August 10, 1945. The war was finally over.


The aftermath of World War II shaped the world for decades to come. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the world's remaining superpowers, but their temporary war-time alliance quickly fell apart. The distrust each side had for the other rapidly drove the two nations into a cold war that would last for 50 years and affected countries around the globe. The United Nations was formed with the hope that a diplomatic organization with representatives from all over the world could help avoid another major war. In the United States, changes on the homefront during the war had a long term impact on the social and economic structure of the nation as well.


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